December 4, 2006
Canada's New Liberal Party LeaderBy Paul Jackson
Canada has a new Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion, a man barely known outside of his own province, and detested by many within Quebec itself. The former environment minister in Prime Minister Paul Martin's defeated government, Dion is an academic and political scientist who lists a year as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. among his credentials.
Dion came out of a field of 11 candidates to win on the fourth ballot at the party's convention in Montreal by being the second choice of delegates supporting others who could not command a majority.
Somewhat controversially, the keynote speaker at the leadership convention was Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean told the audience Canada and the United States were connected by more than electrical power lines or a long border, and that was "shared values". Liberal, he said, are basically prudent and socially progressive. He then caused many delegates to blink when he went on to talk about a permanent election campaign. Unlike the U.S. with its primary system, Canadians tend to think of federal election campaigns in six-week terms. The prime minister decides to go to the people, the House of Commons breaks up, and Election Day is usually six, perhaps sometimes seven, weeks away.
Until the third ballot most political observers had expected former Harvard University professor Michael Ignatieff to take the leadership. Ignatieff, who in a controversial move was parachuted into a Toronto constituency prior to the Jan. 23 federal election which the Liberals lost to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, was in the number one spot on the first three ballots.
He was the heir apparent of the Liberal hierarchy even though he supported the American liberation of Iraq and was known to say "I love the United States" and "I like it there". He even refers to "our founding fathers" and has been described as America's "biggest Liberal hawk".
The other most favored candidate was former Ontario Premier (Governor) Bob Rae who switched from being a New Democrat to the Liberals saying he had learned free enterprise works better than socialism. Rae was second on all four ballots.
Soft-spoken and polite, Dion is a somewhat courageous individual who is loathed by the separatists in Quebec for charting through Parliament the ‘Clarity Act' which will force a straight no-nonsense question on any future independence referendum in Quebec.
In past referenda separatist governments in Quebec have put forward questions which suggest Quebec could be an independent nation and yet still maintain of the benefits of being part of Canada. The key words are "sovereignty-association", but Dion has warned that if French-Canadians vote for independence they might well find themselves part of a very small and insignificant nation floundering around on its own.
While Dion actually borrowed the idea of the Clarity Act from the Conservatives - or from the Reform party and Canadian Alliance which at the time had splintered from the then Progressive Conservatives - he is greatly credited with having outfoxed the separatists. The act also contains several other provisions which would make it harder for the separatists to break Quebec away from Canada, something they have promised to do if they win as little as 51% of the vote in a referendum. Quebec is now governed provincially by a rather unpopular right-of-center Liberal government headed up by Premier Jean Charest, a former federal Conservative leader. The provincial separatist Parti Quebecois is again popular in the polls and seemed poised to winning the next provincial election. However, Harper has dealt Charest some cards that have certainly enhanced his reputation.
Just last month Harper's Conservative government undercut the federal separatist Bloc Quebecois in the House of Commons with a motion declaring Quebec to be "a nation within a unified Canada." Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe had planned to put a straightforward motion before Parliament declaring Quebec outright to be a nation, which would have caused problems for all three federalist parties - the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats in their appeal to win seats in Quebec. When the vote was called, the Liberals and New Democrats supported the Conservative government. Although the motion has no constitutional consequences, it has taken the issue off the agenda for some time. It is believed Harper consulted Dion on the motion before drawing it up.
Incidentally, some surveys show as many as three-quarters of those polled in English Canada opposed Harper's motion. This is a potential problem for Harper since with the exception of the 10 of 75 seats the Conservatives hold in Quebec their base is all in English Canada. Of the other 65 seats the Bloc Quebecois holds 54 and the Liberals the rest. On Election Day, the Conservatives won just 124 out of 308 seats in the House of Commons. It's possible, though, that by the time another election is held, likely this spring, Harper will have been able to convince voters of the necessity of undercutting the Bloc Quebecois by putting forward the motion. Quebec's place in Confederation has long been the tinderbox of Canadian Confederation.
Dion's breakthrough came when the fourth-place contender, Gerard Kennedy, pulled out of the race after the third ballot and moved his supporters to the Quebecer. Kennedy, who until joining the leadership race was minister of education in the Ontario provincial Liberal government, had one major handicap, a lack of French-language skills. Add to that, even worse than Dion, he was absolutely unknown outside of Ontario. Kennedy did put on a brisk campaign, as evidenced by his fourth place finish in three ballots, but the odds were always against him. When his strength never grew after the second ballot, Kennedy quickly put into motion what some believe had been in his mind for some time, to scuttle the leadership ambition of the establishment's favorite, Ignatieff, and put a clean face at the top.
Dion, who also served as intergovernmental affairs minister in the government of Paul Martin's predecessor, Jean Chretien, is viewed as perhaps the most honest member of the scandal-plagued Chretien/Martin administrations.
Despite his seemingly high profile - especially now - he has been little known to the average voter in English Canada. He speaks English haltingly, although precisely. Most observers believe while he can give a prepared speech in English quite well, he will have difficulty in tug-of-war debates where quick punches are necessary.
As far as Washington is concerned, Ignatieff would have been the choice candidate, although Dion might be prove to be as acceptable in time. Certainly, none of the four leading candidates are known to have shown any antagonism to the U.S., so the party seems to have entered a new era and put the Chretien/Martin regimes behind them.
Chretien's nephew, Raymond Chretien, when Canadian Ambassador to Washington, let it be known that Liberal Ottawa would prefer Al Gore to win the 2000 presidential election rather than George W. Bush. Chretien's communications chief, Francine Ducros, openly called Bush a "moron" and was never rebuked for it. Martin used the U.S. as a whipping boy during the Jan. 23 election campaign, blaming just about all of Canada's problems on Washington. In the midst of these events, prominent Liberal Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish declared: "Americans - the bastards. I hate them", and then went on television and stomped on a doll in the image of Bush. Martin, a wealthy shipping tycoon, never chastised Parrish until she attacked him personally.
It's fair to say the Conservatives won votes and likely some razor-thin wins in some constituencies because voters in various parts of the country, especially rural areas and Western Canada, couldn't tolerate the Liberals' anti-Americanism. Since Harper took over, relations between Ottawa and Washington have improved dramatically, much to Canada's advantage.
Ignatieff's main faultline may have been he had spent almost all of the past 30 years outside of Canada before being cajoled into running as a Liberal candidate in Toronto. Aside from teaching at Harvard, he also taught at the University of California, Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics. He penned a large number of books on politics and history, and made an award-winning documentary in Britain for BBC-TV. When questioned about his absence from Canada for so long, he explained the very reason he came back to Canada and entered politics was to repay the nation for what it had allowed him to do. Yet, when queried about whether he would still remain in politics if he lost the leadership, he initially expressed doubts, which made him look like at opportunist to some, and certainly did some harm to his campaign. Unless he was offered a major post in a Liberal cabinet, such as foreign affairs, the betting is he will return to the academic world. Ignatieff certainly has a tough decision to make, because if he does decide to run again, and Harper's Conservative win a majority government, Ignatieff would be stuck in the opposition benches for at least four years. Of note, in the Canadian Parliament, opposition MPs have virtually no power. While the Conservative allow free votes for their members, Liberal leaders traditionally demand their MPs toe the party line, especially in government.
Rae is not in the same kind of vise. As premier of Ontario between 1990-95, his province went from prosperity to verging on bankruptcy. While the New Democrats in Canada, whether federal or provincial, rely largely on unions for financial support, labor quickly revolted against Rae's government. He gave Ontario the highest tax rates of any jurisdiction in North America, and government spending soared. So did the accumulated debt. The situation got so bad Rae ordered government employees to take 10 days leave without pay. These became mockingly referred to as ‘Rae Days'.
He held on almost until he was constitutionally forced to call an election, and lost it dramatically. Yet, Rae has built himself considerable esteem of late heading up various commissions and inquiries, and insists he has learned that governments do not have all the answers, as he once thought. While his supposed grand dreams of uniting the Liberals and New Democrats to form a party the Conservative could never topple is over, Rae will undoubtedly be offered various posts and maintain a high public profile. Many Conservatives wanted Rae to win the leadership, believing his disastrous tenure as premier had left such a bad taste in the mouths of Ontario voters it would open the door for them to win a significantly higher number of seats in that province.
It's hard to say whether Dion will pose a serious threat to Harper's minority government. He will certainly have some appeal to disenchanted Liberal voters, drained by the scandals of the Chretien/Martin times. Yet because of the Clarity Act some doubt he can substantially rebuild Liberal fortunes in Quebec, which was once a Liberal stronghold, and English Canadians may not be ready to go for a third straight Liberal leader from Quebec, which they tend to think routinely blackmails Ottawa for federal favoritism. Although in the opinion polls the Conservatives remain roughly where they were on the Jan. 23 election day - around 37% - Harper's personal popularity is in the 60% range and the general assessment is that he is doing a capable job.
Certainly with an election likely looming next spring, politics in Canada is becoming an edge-of-the-seat affair, at least for political pundits and party members.
Paul Jackson is a veteran, award-winning political journalist who has covered North American and world politics for many of Canada's major metropolitan newspapers over the past four decades. He is now Editor Emeritus of the Calgary Sun.